Birth is a life-changing experience, and each birth brings with it a new and different assortment of experiences and feelings. Hopefully, your birth was a happy occasion, but it may have been unexpectedly hard or even downright disappointing. After the birth, hormonal changes can play havoc with your body and your feelings, and you will find it helpful to integrate the changes by acknowledging and dealing with the feelings that come up in the days, weeks and months after your baby has arrived.
The feelings you experience after birth may be the most intense you have ever encountered: great surges of joy and happiness, delicious feelings of contentment and fulfillment, overwhelming fears and worries or waves of sadness and shock. So many feelings can bubble up so much so that some women feel as if they are on an emotional roller coaster!
I have listed some common feelings below. You may experience more than one at a time i.e., shock and loss, anger and guilt, excitement and confusion, or find yourself yo-yoing between one and another, whilst you come to terms with the transition from pregnancy to motherhood.
Feelings of joy and euphoria immediately after the birth can be overwhelming as you bond with your baby and find yourself ‘falling in love’ in a way that you had never dreamed of. Like any other emotion, this one needs expressing and enjoying, but not so that it gets out of hand as it can actually prevent women from resting or sleeping and sometimes even from eating.
The wonder that comes with welcoming your baby can be completely breathtaking. This is someone you have carried, but haven’t known and is now (one of) the most intimate relationship(s) of your life. It’s a happy miracle!
This can be quite mild i.e., you can’t believe you have made a real live baby. One moment you were pregnant with your baby inside you and now here he or she is! Or that you are now a parent and you don’t feel any more grown up! The shock can be severe – nothing feels quite real, with feelings of fear and anxiety.
Shock is common after a fast labour, if you have had Pethadine during labour and didn’t feeling fully present, emotionally, during the actual birth, or if you had a Caesarean under a general anesthetic.
Some women experience sadness in waves of crying over nothing much, or over silly, little things, or feeling sentimental at seeing a puppy or a baby on television (even in a toilet paper ad). This is a part and parcel of the hormonal roller coaster. It is also common to feel sad and lonely once the first wave of visitors have left, especially if you are a single parent or your partner works long hours. The days can drag by, especially in the winter months.
There can be a surprising feeling of emptiness after the birth with the loss of the pregnancy, especially for women who have enjoyed their pregnancy, who loved carrying their babies and who find that they miss that special closeness.
It can be hard to come to terms with disappointment, whether this centers around the birth itself or the baby. That is either of them may not being what you expected. For example, you had set your heart (maybe secretly) on a girl, and are shocked and disappointed that he is a boy baby. This, like all feelings, needs talking and working through, so that it doesn’t become an additional stress.
Regrets and resentments around the birth itself are common, especially if you ended up with a different birth from the one you really wanted. Then there are the resentments that come with all that has to be done, especially for a demanding baby and other family members, with no time left over for you.
Well-meaning visitors, including health care professionals, may put their attention into your new baby and it can be a shock to feel relatively unimportant after a pregnancy where you were made to feel special. Many women resent the loss of freedom after an independent life. Some women find themselves missing their former pre-pregnant, tight-muscled body, and feeling bad about resentful feelings towards their baby and their partner for ‘causing’ changes in their bodies.
You may feel angry at things that went wrong during or after the birth, especially if your baby needed medical attention. The post natal period is fertile ground for angry feelings, from partners who don’t pull their weight or who are absent, to older children who act out their jealousy over the new baby to parents and out-laws who tell you what to do.
Every new mother feels frustrated with their baby at some point, especially if he or she cries a lot (and can’t be calmed), or wakes frequently at night. It can be hard to come to terms with the intensity of love and anger that can well up at the same time. Many women find themselves snapping in the middle of the night, wailing with their babies and feeling helpless. This is a sign to get support, rather than wait until anger has built up to unmanageable proportions.
This feeling can surface with any or all of the other feelings, but especially with anger (mothers shouldn’t get angry with their babies), or if you feel depressed and are dragging yourself around. Especially, if you think that you don’t have a good reason to feel down.
It is common to feel guilty about the lack of time you are giving to your partner or your other children, especially if you have a high maintenance (demanding) baby!
Fears can come in waves as you adjust to the reality that you now have responsibility for the demands of a new little person who cannot tell you yet what she wants, or what is wrong with her when she cries. It is common to be frightened about whether your baby will be alright, to be fearful for her health, especially when others are holding her (in case they drop her or breath germs on her). New mothers can wake in fright at night wondering whether their babies are still breathing.
Feelings of anxiety can weave themselves in and amongst all the other feelings: anxiety about how you are going to cope, especially if you are struggling financially or if you have to go back to work, worries about the baby and whether you will be a ‘good’ mother. Facing your own hopes and expectations of motherhood and how different they are from the reality can be hard and anxiety-inducing, especially if this is your first baby.
Women with a lack of self confidence, those who grew up in a dysfunctional family (who had unpleasant childhood experiences, whose own mother was emotionally or physically absent) may find parenting particularly worrisome.
Many women find their brains turn to ‘mush’ in the weeks after the birth, the breastfeeding hormones have a ‘softening’ affect, which can affect the mind and the body! It is common to find thinking and concentrating difficult, to become absent-minded and forgetful. A sense of humour is enormously helpful!
There is such a high expectation to have strong feelings that it can be a shock to feel relatively little, especially towards the baby. Some women take a while to bond with their babies, this is more common if mother and baby are separated immediately after the birth (because either the mother or the baby need medical attention), or if there is a lack of adequate post-natal support with women who have had a stressful pregnancy with a big emotional stress such as a bereavement.
This surfaces when too many other feelings come at once, when the demands on your time and energy are overwhelming and you feel that you just can’t cope. Women wonder whether life will ever feel normal, and ask themselves how they will ever manage to do simple, ordinary things, like washing their hair and cooking a simple meal again.
A satisfying birth will hopefully strengthen your relationship and leave both you and your partner feeling closer. A difficult birth followed by post-natal stress and a demanding baby may leave you feeling shipwrecked and drive a wedge between you and your partner that is difficult to heal. You will need to look at answering each other’s needs in ways that may be different now that the baby has arrived.
Fathers can so easily feel left out of the the mother and baby picture…going to work and coming home to a pile of nappies and one of washing up, an exhausted spouse and a crying baby. Suddenly the picture doesn’t look so rosy!
It is important to remember that partners have feelings, too! Fathers can feel any or all of the emotions that mothers go through, and they need to acknowledge them and deal with them in order to stay healthy. They need to take time to recover from the birth, especially if they were active birthing partners.
Plan to spend some time with each other on a regular basis (without the baby), once a week for an evening is a good beginning and will keep your relationship healthy. Remember, children have a habit of surviving, relationships do not.
“debriefing” after the birth
Tell the story of your birth, bearing in mind that the more difficult your birth, the more talking you will need to do. You will find it healing to tell your birth story over and over again so that you can understand how it affected you. Talk about how you are feeling with people you trust, who care about you. Ask them just to listen to you and not to try and talk you out of your feelings. As you talk you may be surprised at the feelings that come up: even weeks or months afterwards. Don’t listen (or talk) to people who suggest (however kindly) that you put it behind you, after all you and your baby are both okay…you will recover faster if you acknowledge these feelings, however painful they are. If you pretend they aren’t there, this can create an inner tension that, given the right combination of circumstances, will contribute to post-natal depression developing.
Write an account of the birth, putting in as much detail as you can remember. As you write, notice the feelings that surface and write about them too. When you have finished you may want to read it to your partner or let him read it, and then talk some more about it.
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